Emirates recently won an Airline Business strategy award for technology. Here's why:
Some carriers burst onto the in-flight entertainment scene like giant supernovas. They extol the virtues of a new system or gizmo - and perhaps even briefly outshine other products - only to let the technology languish and ultimately fade out of the limelight. Emirates is not one of these airlines. It introduced the world's first seatback in-flight entertainment screens in 1992, and has not stopped innovating since then.
Today Emirates' signature "ICE" (information, communication, entertainment) platform, powered by Panasonic Avionics' eX2 system, stands out as one of the most cutting-edge in-flight entertainment and connectivity systems in the world.
In addition to offering near endless entertainment choices, ICE uses Inmarsat L-band satellite-based connectivity and a standard ACARS datalink to provide passengers with news and sports updates in-flight.
Passengers also have access to seat-back dial-up e-mail and SMS communications, as well as satcom telephony.
If Emirates only offered ICE, its passengers would still rank among the most entertained and connected travellers in the skies. But Emirates has also been a pioneer for in-flight mobile connectivity. It is in the process of fitting its current operating fleet with Panasonic partner AeroMobile's L-band solution, which will enable passengers to use their mobiles to send and receive voice calls and text messages. GPRS e-mail service will also soon be supported.
By the middle of February this year, AeroMobile clocked up its 100,000th user. The vast majority of this was Emirates. The Middle East carrier also recently inked a deal to offer Airbus/SITA joint venture OnAir's mobile connectivity solution on new-delivery Airbus A380s to ensure mobile service is offered fleet-wide as quickly as possible.
In short, when it comes to technology, Emirates does nothing in half measures. "At Emirates, it is very much the culture to embrace technology wherever it makes good sense. We don't tend to wait for someone else to assess it. We assess and get moving," says Emirates vice president corporate communications, product, publishing digital and events Patrick Brannelly, who joined Emirates in 1992 when the carrier was first to putting monitors at every seat.
"That all seems so normal now, but it was absolutely earthshaking in those days. It was seen as very advanced technology. In reality it was complicated, but it wasn't just about technology. It was about the product. The passenger saw it as a better way to fly. And over the years we've added to that. We try to keep the product new, fresh and exiting all the time."
To support that vision, Emirates will ultimately need to look into bringing high-speed connectivity on board its aircraft. "People are doing everything on iPhones, iPads [and the like]. More and more of that mobile connectivity will be demanded in the future and they'll expect to be connected all the time. That's obviously the end game. How you technically achieve that on aircraft in the interim period is the big challenge for airlines. We obviously look very closely at that," says Brannelly.
He doesn't believe that connectivity poses a threat to its IFE system. Instead, the carrier sees huge potential in leveraging ICE to connect on a more personal level with passengers.
"We don't see [ICE] as embedded IFE. These systems aren't just [about] entertainment. They're so much more. They are the portals through which we communicate with our customer, and through which they communicate with the world. As we go forward in the future, we'll be doing more and more with those systems. Some of that really good stuff in the future is about making that person's life easier."